I snagged David’s jacket sleeve and stopped him from crossing the threshold. I whispered, “Hold on a sec, just hold on.”
He turned his head to me, his eyebrows raised.
“We can’t do anything,” I said.
Quizzical look on his face.
“Do you really want to watch a family get murdered and not be able to do anything?”
He pressed his lips together and peeled away a short strip of gray paint from the doorway.
I continued, “It’s one thing to read about it and another to see it happen. Let’s just go, maybe–”
Thunk from inside the house. We jumped. My grip tightened on David’s jacket, and when he darted inside the house, I came along for the ride. I could have planted my feet and dragged him out, but part of me wanted to see what had happened so many decades ago too. Morbid curiosity is an odd thing.
I noticed the smells first: burning wood, fried bacon, must, mice, blood. Then the interior: big living room, sparse furnishings, brick fireplace, plaster walls, rough floorboards. The fire was dying, but I could still make out the quilt-covered shapes in front of the fireplace. Merllyn Sanger stood over them, holding the ax like Babe Ruth. He swung it down into one of the shapes. Thunk.
I jumped, so did the body he’d hit. David sucked in air. Sanger made his third swing, made another thunk, and this time, I shouted, “Stop it, asshole!”
Swift, Anderson. He’d already killed them all. Great effort, though. Way to go.
He stood there, head lowered, ax held in both hands across his body, like he was afraid someone would take it from him. The fire popped and crackled. That blood smell was loud and heavy in the air, but the usual things that happen to me when I smell blood–skin prickling, teeth aching in their sockets, heart jackhammering, and yes, my mouth watering–were absent. That was peculiar, but this whole thing was peculiar, so I filed it under So What and dismissed it.
Sanger was moving toward us. The rest of his life had to play out, after all. I turned around, grabbed David’s jacket, started to shove him outside. “Time to go,” I said. “Let’s give this asshole room–”
A fourth thunk. I was shoved from behind. I felt David’s hands grip my arms, and then I felt a fucking ax in my back. I sagged against him.
I said, quite clearly, “Time to go.”
– – – – – – – – – –
“T-ugh guff,” Elizabeth says.
My mouth is dry. There’s an ax sticking out of her back. Sanger wraps his hands around its handle and pulls it backward. At the same time, I pull her forward. The blade pops out. Her blood spatters against the plaster ceiling as Sanger arcs the ax over his head. She gasps.
I stumble outside, Elizabeth hugged to my chest. The cold hits me, and I’m grateful that I can feel it, because, for a while there, I couldn’t feel anything. Couldn’t react to anything. I felt . . . disconnected, I guess, is close enough. Like everything around me was happening to someone else. I’d felt that way since I saw Sanger enter the house. I vaguely remember Elizabeth talking to me, but I don’t think I answered her.
The porch creaks under my feet as I drag her away from the door. Sanger appears in the doorway, the ax resting on his right shoulder. He’s about five-eight, skinny, with black hair parted in the middle and slicked back. I know shooting him won’t do anything, but I have to–
Elizabeth twists in my arms, and the unexpected movement makes me lose my grip and my balance. I fall down the porch steps, landing on my left hip and elbow. She stays on the porch and lands on her knees. Her gun is out so fast, it’s a blur. I forget sometimes how spooky-quick she is now. She fires off four shots at Sanger, and he staggers back inside the house.
I’m not sure how, but she makes it to her feet. The least I can do is shag ass onto the porch and stand by her side. Her gun is still pointed at the doorway.
“Elizabeth, hey,” I say.
She goes to one knee. I bend down and she whispers, “Something’s wrong.”
“Understatement of the year.”
“I’m not healing.”
Okay, that’s bad. I’ve seen her hyper-healing in action. That gash in her back should be gone by now. I shine my flashlight on her back. I can barely see the ragged wound for all the blood. “What can I do?” I say, because I need to say something.
She shakes her head. “It’s this place. I think. We need to get out. But that Jell-O will be a problem.”
“Jell-O. Hah. There’s a barrier around us. Can’t get out. I tried to warn you. But you walked. Right past me. Shit. Help me up.”
Sanger is back. There are bullet holes in his gray button-down shirt, but no blood. He stares at us.
Elizabeth slings her right arm around my neck. The left, her gun hand, she points at Sanger. He lowers his head to his battered work boots and stays put.
We make it down the steps. I want to head to the car, but Elizabeth insists that it’s useless. She keeps talking about the Simpsons and Jell-O and generally not making much sense. She lets me lead her around the house. There’s a small storage building about fifty yards from the house, and we head to it. It’s painted the same droopy gray as the house. It’s not padlocked, a minor miracle, and I lift the latch.
Inside, it’s cluttered with a cart, tools (broken and unbroken), piles of shingles, boards, and a broken brass bed. I lower Elizabeth to a clear spot on the hard-packed dirt and start piling everything I can against the door.
I finish the barricade and then it occurs to me to check for another way in. I shine my light around, but there’s nothing. That’s good and bad. I sit beside my girlfriend. My dying girlfriend, a dark part of my brain adds. I ignore it and sweep a hank of dark red hair off her sweaty forehead. “I’m officially out of ideas,” I say.
It takes her a few seconds to reply, and when she does, her voice is strained. “That’s okay. When did he hang himself?”
“What? Hell, I don’t remember. Did the book say? I don’t remember if it–”
She interrupts, “When was that? How long do we have?”
Ah God. “Elizabeth, honey, I don’t remember. I don’t even know what time it is.”
“Shit,” she mutters.